I am not sure how well this little story works, but I am so upset and heart-wrenched about this that I had to take a stab at writing something about it. The Penn State child abuse “scandal,” which I prefer to call an “outrage,” has really gotten to me. John Scalzi wrote a great post about this and brought Ursula K. Le Guin’s great story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” into it. Both John Barnes and I mentioned wanting to write a sequel, and since I am apparently paralyzed by anger and frustration about this (for personal reasons mostly), I thought I would try a spot of writing therapy. This is the result.
This is a zero draft that I wrote in about 90 minutes. Comments are welcome.
“The Ones Who Went Back”
As the sun arose in the east on the second day of summer, the people of Omelas slowly rose from their beds and began a new day. Bedsheets were flung off, soft robes and tunics laid out, windows opened to let in as much light and fresh air as possible as the people of the city lounged in their bedclothes and drank juices and teas and light spirits while the best scents of the sea and the farmland around them wafted in and mingled with smells of fresh pastries, ripe fruits spilling from bowls, and the sizzle of eggs and perfectly-smoked bacon. As the night’s coolness gave way to the sun’s invigorating warmth, the citizens laughed and touched fingers and shared morsels of their morning repast with each other, and opened themselves to the coming of yet another wonderful day.
As they bathed and dressed after a luxurious morning, a few clouds drifted in. No one paid much heed to this, for even in early summer this was common. There was little rain but, as some wags put it, too much sunshine would get boring. Part of the happiness of the city was invested in such small changes, and the rhythms of those changes were well-known and welcomed. So the citizens went about their day without concern, and as more clouds gathered and the sun rose higher the streets came alive with purpose and the certainty that the day would go well, as the days always did in this place.
By the time the sun reached its zenith, a few people began looking skyward, feeling something they rarely felt: concern. The older folks noted that the sky was a bit different, but could not explain why. They shrugged, secure in the knowledge that this would not last long. The guarantee of their happiness assured them of this, and they acknowledged its source while not seeing it in their minds. A few thought of it, briefly, but did not let their mind’s eyes adjust to the darkness, rubbed the smells out of their noses with a quick scouring of the back of their hands, took a sip of pure water or tea to wash away the ghost of a taste in the air from a long time ago. A momentary shiver, perhaps, a slight gritting of the teeth, and then back to fixing a net or correcting a child’s writing or daubing fresh paint on a tower’s crenelations.
It was one of those painters who first saw them. Joking with his fellows while smearing a brilliant blue on the bricks and trim of the turret, he looked off to the west, towards the mountains, and quite suddenly stiffened in his harness and dropped his brush. It fell to the platform below and splashed into a vat of empyrean white, staining the freshly-coated wall below him with splotches and rivulets that besmirched the entire morning’s work. His companions laughed, even though their work was ruined, until they saw him gasp, and then fumble to clamber back down. His feet slammed onto the platform and as his coworkers gaped at him he pointed over their shoulders to the land beyond the walls.
They turned, and saw a long line of tiny forms, like ants but only slightly so, moving towards the city. The shrouded sun had muted the contrast they presented on the landscape until they were quite close, and who in Omelas ever bothered to look outside the walls, except to check on the farmlands that required almost no care? But here came visitors, a thin, moving strand that stretched to the horizon. People were coming, and every throat on that platform turned chalk-dry and every face tightened until all the bones showed and threatened to break through the skin.
Once back on the ground, the painters ran, some to their homes, others to the city hall. The word spread quickly, but the feeling spread faster. In a world where only one thing is wrong the sight of a man running and not stopping for anything sends a message. People did not try to stop these runners, but gathered in groups and asked one another what was happening. This was not the pace of an early summer’s day; this was not some happy urgency of good news. They looked up at the sky and realized that now it was not beclouded, but an iron-gray sheet over their heads. And a feeling that was rarely felt began to rise: a form of worry that had no source that anyone could speak of, would speak of.
By the time the elders were informed and they have moved, quickly but not headlong, to the gates of the city, the approaching line has reached the vast portal, which was always open but never inviting. Here is what they saw: men and women, old and young people, hobblers and striders, all marching resolutely through the gateway and into the city. They all held their heads high, although some were crying, others frowning, a few oddly smiling. They were dressed in all manners of clothes, most in drab colors, much of it simple wear, but a hundred different fortunes were worn on their bodies. Some looked prosperous and well-fed, some wore threadbare garb and had a gaunt hang to their skin. A few were scuffed and dirty, in tatters, limping, missing an eye or a finger, a few muttered to themselves and trembled, but all walked with the same sense of purpose. All of their eyes looked forward, and while their paces were different them seemed to move as one.
In the first moment, the elders do not know what to do. No one in the city does. Then, a few point and say “I know him!” and “She’s from our family!” and there is a brief sense of rejoicing, for those who walked away have returned! Older folk nod at their good sense while former friends and lovers see familiar faces and wave and shout greetings. But that does not last long, for when none of the returnees reply, when they just keep walking down the broad avenue, the noises die. Smiles turn to flat lines on worried faces. None in this marching horde do anything but continue to walk, now turning towards the public building that everyone of age has been in before.
Now the elders act: they set themselves in front of the marchers, and with raised hands and stern tones tell them to halt. The walkers continue on, brushing past the elders, shouldering them aside, not with force, but with the momentum of their purpose. Citizens step before them too, trying to turn sons and cousins and wives back, cajoling, imploring, but the walkers continue their journey. As they approach the building an elder runs ahead and locks the doors, standing with arms crossed before the great aperture. Now the crowds are begging, screaming, grabbing at sleeves and cloaks to pull the marchers aside, but their grips are weak and the steady gait of the wayfarers pulls them away from the people they no longer know. When they reached the massive portico they push the elder before them, and it is his back that swings the huge door open, for there is only one door in the city that can truly be locked. He is shoved aside with his useless door, his keys jerked from his flaccid hands, and the exiles close ranks as they pour into the great hall.
They fill the rooms of the building so quickly that no citizen can get in behind them. There is panicked screeching in the streets, wailing, tugging at dress hems and pant legs as citizens fall to the ground and try to use their bodies to weigh down the dissenters. But they keep moving, until they have filled the great edifice and no more can enter. Only then do they stop, and stand, unmoving and unmoved by the chaos growing around them.
Inside, two have come to a door in the cellar. The man and woman stare at the door. It is tenebrous, of cracking wood and half-shadows, that is poorly cared for because of what lies behind it. The woman jingles the keys she took from the elder. The man sighs, puts a hand on the door. Upstairs is silence, even though the room above is filled with people. But outside the window behind them, which gives the cellar its only light, there is noise. People thump their fists on the strong, dirty window, and while their shouts are muted both of them feel what is being said, what is being asked of them. They look at each other, shake their heads, and together open the door.
The smell actually comes first, just as they remember it from the last time they were there. Putrid, noxious, and craven, it smells vaguely human, strongly of waste, and brings tears to their eyes not because of the stench but because of what the smell contains, a memory that puts the man on his knees and make the woman hug herself, for a moment oblivious to the desperate riot behind them and the quiet resolve above. They are frozen, because here, in this dimness, the stink of the little room wafting over them, saturating them, is what they walked away from, and they feel that urge to do so again. They smell their own meekness; they can taste something bitter and pitiable mixed in with the redolence of excrement and sweat and a horrible sweetness. The hear the crowds outside, and also hear the mute ones above. The man can feel, under his knees, the dirt vibrating with the terror and veniality of those outside, while his hair prickles with the shame and immobility of those above, and his own sudden paralysis. So close now, but. . . .
The woman shudders. She smells fear, but from within the small room itself. She cannot hear the crowds outside, or feel the weight of the waiting comrades above. She hears a tiny noise, from the closet, a sore-ridden tongue scraped across moldering teeth, and she begins to shake steadily. The smells begin to change; they are of a boy’s abused bowels desperately purging his body, of unending pain sweated out through reddened, welted skin, of the daily rot that slowly winds that child’s life down for the city’s comfort. She cannot stop hugging herself, but she moves, she nudges the man with her foot. He starts, grabs her foot, and lets it carry him to the ground when she puts it back down. He puts his face in the dirt, and when it smudges his cheek and stings his eyes, he lifts himself back up, tasting the combined flavors of the little room with the world outside. In one motion he rises, and reaches out to the woman. and she frees a hand to grasp his. And then the boy whimpers, and they enter the room.
They kneel down to him. He recoils and whispers that he will be good, that he will do whatever they want, that he, that he. . . he doesn’t know what to say. He realizes as they sit with him in the filth that something is different. The man touches the boy’s face and asks if he can stand while the woman removes her cape and starts to clean him. The boy begins to cry, afraid that it is a trick, until the woman slides her cape beneath him and he feels soft cloth instead of filth-caked floor, and he lets himself fall into the man’s arms.
For a time, all they do is cry. Then, the man and woman lift the boy together, she covering him while he whispers to the boy over and over, words that are meaningless to repeat here. They bring him up from the cellar, shield his eyes from the light, dim as it is, and move with him to the center of the crowd. And then, as one again, the exiles move to leave the city once again.
The citizens are weeping now, some trying to worm their way into the tightly packed march to get to the boy, to put him back, while others sullenly tear their clothes, and a few join in with the marchers, moving as part of one thing back to the city gate. As they leave, citizens follow behind offering everything they can think of for the boy’s return: riches, love, forgiveness, a place in the city once again. But the marchers stride out of the city, leaving its inhabitants to shriek and blame the exiles for their coming misfortune. They are berated as they leave; do they not know what they do?
With renewed purpose they depart, their mass unassailable, their ears closed to all entreaties. No one breaks away, no one says a final blessing for the city. The man and woman move through the company so that their compatriots can see the boy, and that he can see them. He recognizes some of them, who came and looked at him with disgust and rage, but cannot smile at them, only lay his head on the man’s shoulder and squeeze the woman’s hand. He is carried out on a river of souls through the gates and away from city.
As the last one passes through the gate, the sky reverberates with thunder. No citizen follows them; why leave now? They stand upon the walls, under the portal, on rooftops and turrets and watch the exiles leave again. None are surprised by the rumbling beneath them, and some even whisper welcome to it.
The exiles stop. The man and woman and the boy all turn to look back. With a more merciful swiftness than any of them wish the city shakes and fall in on itself, with thunderclaps above signaling the end. It is quickly a pile of dust; even the bodies of the citizens turn into useless powder. The fields wither, the harbor waters withdraw, and suddenly there is just a patina of grime where the great city stood. The watchers wait until the sky is blue again and the sun shines, slowly setting in the west, before they go on with their journey. The boy drifts off to dreamless sleep, knowing now that there is no nightmare that will ever terrorize him again.